Efficiency is one of the hallmarks of our society. And, on the surface, creating more desired results from the resources available may seem benign or even beneficial, whether we’re talking agriculture, business, government, or education. However, our quest for efficiency is, increasingly, leading us to dangerous places.
A good example of this lies in the way we produce our food. Take, for instance, the highly efficient “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). Critics have been warning for years that these massive, inhumane animal factories are incubators for virulent super-pathogens, and we’ve written about them in Natural Life Magazine. Knowing that their crowded and unhygienic farms put animals at risk of disease, farmers pump pigs and cattle full of antibiotics, which is the prerequisite for antibiotic-resistant organisms and a potential public health crisis. The industrial farming company finds it more efficient to give drugs to healthy animals than to grow food on small, mixed farms where conditions are humane, animals stay healthy, and customers are nearby. This efficiency serves both corporate greed and consumer desire for cheap food.
Capitalism is also, by definition and design, highly efficient as it matches resources to consumer demand. Globalization is an efficiency-driven expansion of capitalism, with its deregulation of nation-state financial and labor markets. And we are now seeing the effects of an integrated global economy on the environment and society. It is increasing the devastation of natural habitats, speeding global warming, and polluting water supplies. It has given us unsustainable development, job insecurity, and growing socio-economic inequity. It has usurped democratic control by multinational corporations and the financial institutions that support them. And it is focused on growth at all costs, irrespective of quality of life.
While we would like to agree with the promoters of these policies that they will eventually lead to democratization and freedom around the world, globalization was not chosen by voters. In fact, democracy itself is not particularly efficient. Educating people about the issues, allowing for discussion and debate, consensus-building, and implementing policies that are not in the best interests of everyone, all require time and can be messy. Dictatorship is much more efficient!
Education is one of the ways we presume to learn to live democratically. But efficiency has become a hallmark of public education too, creating large classes, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and standardized testing. Efficiency has entrenched the outmoded factory model of schooling and its pursuit of economies of scale at a time when we are long overdue for a paradigm shift instead. We are efficiently processing students along a conveyor belt of stale facts instead of helping them develop their creativity, research skills, adaptation abilities, and love of learning, all of which will help them live more democratically and productively. I’ve written about this – and the alternative – in Life Learning Magazine.
Fortunately, it seems that the issues of the day are providing us with the inspiration to embrace less efficient but more robust systems in all these aspects of life. I think we could be approaching the tipping point, where enough people recognize that efficiency is not always the most important thing and that the “experts” don’t always have our best interests at heart.
Many more of us are moving back to basics, spending less money on courses and electronic toys for our children, growing our own veggie gardens, leaving our cars at home when walking or cycling are possible, taking control over our own health and wellness, shopping less and mending more, getting to know our neighbors and enjoying time spent with family. These things aren’t necessarily efficient, but they are creating habits that will ultimately make us healthier, better governed, and more educated. I’ve seen a huge increase in interest in these topics since my partner Rolf and I started Natural Life Magazine almost forty years ago.
Hitting the ecological, economic, and ethical walls all at the same time has got our attention. It remains to be seen how we will work ourselves out of the mess. But I do know that more people than ever before have a sense of the impact their actions have on the world. So I continue to have hope for a sustainable future – where capitalism and consumerism do not cause human suffering, and where individuals take responsibility for discontinuing and cleaning up environmental and economic devastation.